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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

I Have Layoff Anxiety. Here’s How I’m Learning to Cope.

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Nothing fills me with dread like an email from my manager that says, “Hey Liz, got a second to talk?” When this simple question hit my inbox a few months ago, I felt my pulse accelerate and my chest tighten. As I agreed to the impromptu chat, unpleasant questions whipped through my mind: Was I about to lose my job? What would I do next? Would there be a severance package? What would my family of five do for healthcare coverage?

Why did I immediately imagine the worst possible scenario? After losing a full-time job in 2014 and another in 2017, I have layoff anxiety. Nearly half of employed Americans do, according to a 2019 Harris Poll/CareerArc survey of more than 2,200 U.S. adults, and that was, of course, before the pandemic skewered the economy.

If you’ve ever been laid off, you may have felt shocked and upset as you received the bad news. After those initial emotions fade, universal feelings that can come up following layoffs—including embarrassment and shame—often fall into the category of “not enoughness,” says Muse career coach Annie Nogg. “Thoughts may surface—consciously or unconsciously—like, ‘I am disposable,’ ‘I am subpar,’ or ‘I am not worthy.’”

Research has shown that layoffs can have long-term impacts on your work experiences, health, and well-being. Feelings of unease, self-doubt, and mistrust can linger long after you’ve secured a new gig, sparking anxiety and insecurity about how long your current role will last. Almost like muscle memory, in my experience, your body stores the impact of your layoff and is ready to serve up all the debilitating sensations that accompany it at the slightest provocation, like receiving an unexpected request to meet with your boss or hearing talk of strategy or budget changes.

“Fear of the unknown or feelings of things being out of one’s control can absolutely linger even once someone starts a new job,” Nogg says, adding that it’s not uncommon to think, “I​f it happened once, it can (or will) happen again,” or, “I wasn't good enough there, why would I be good enough somewhere else?”

As painful as it may sound, Nogg suggests addressing these feelings head on, which has made me realize that if I want to move forward it's important to reflect on my past layoffs.

When I lost that first job in January 2014, I’d been working as the editor of several local online news sites. Clusters of my colleagues had been let go in the months leading up to my layoff. That should’ve prepared me. Yet when more than 200 of my colleagues and I were told, “Your role has been eliminated,” during a 30-second, one-way conference call, I felt stunned. It took days to process. In that role, I’d increased website traffic and social media engagement, and connected countless merchants with our ad sales team. It didn’t matter. The company was being sold and it needed to lower its headcount and add cash to its balance sheet.

In July 2014, after six months of job hunting, I received an offer for a full-time writing position at a parenting website that I happily accepted. But before my first anniversary with the company, several coworkers were let go. With each dismissal, my mind flashed back to my layoff, triggering waves of anxiety as I wondered if I’d be next. Seeing your fellow teammates getting let go is almost always bad for morale, but if you’ve been laid off before, those negative feelings are compounded. For me, entering this new company only to see old patterns repeated caused my self-doubt to flare as I questioned if I’d made the right choice. Should I have continued looking before leaping at the first offer that came my way? How long would it be before I was right back to sending out resumes, crafting cover letters, and hoping to land interviews? And how would I explain my short stint at this new company?

Even during periods when no one was laid off and new hires joined, the idea that I could lose the job at any moment haunted me. If I received an unexpected phone call or an invitation to an unscheduled meeting with my boss, I would break out in a cold sweat. Anytime I entered the office kitchen and saw the cofounder frowning or sighing, I braced for the worst. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, weeks before my third anniversary at that company, I received a call letting me know they’d had to make some cuts and my role had been eliminated. Despite my ongoing concerns, deep down some part of me didn’t truly believe I could be laid off again. Given that I work in the media industry, which has seen employment shrink by 26% since 2008, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Still, it stung—especially as worries about how I’d make my mortgage payments and where I’d find my next position returned in an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

Losing your job has become almost commonplace—not just in media. In fact, that same 2019 study from Harris Poll/CareerArc found that 40% of American workers had been terminated or laid off at least once. And a September 2020 study found that a quarter of U.S. adults said they or someone in their household had lost a job due to the pandemic.

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Anyone who’s lived through COVID-19 and the Great Recession before it knows you can do a stellar job and still be dismissed because your company is restructuring, being acquired, or facing a global health crisis that has drastically altered its business. While the job market has shifted considerably since the early months of the pandemic, with the Great Rehire enabling those who were let go during the pandemic to secure new positions, that doesn’t mean layoff anxiety won’t follow them into their new offices.

When I started a full-time job in April 2021 after three years of freelancing, I thought I’d put the days of worrying about layoffs behind me. After all, if I’d been able to survive as a self-employed writer and editor once, I could do it again if I had to, I reasoned. But after only a couple of months at my new company, a colleague was let go. When I found out, I felt my stomach churn as those old familiar fears and doubts swept through me. Was it a cost-saving measure? Was her work not up to par? Will I be next? These questions looped through my mind day and night in the weeks that followed. Layoff anxiety became an ever-present officemate who never took a five-minute break.

So even though my manager’s request for that quick talk, it turned out, was only to discuss a new assignment, it sent me into a semi-panic. Knowing that I needed help to move forward, I reached out to Nogg as well as Muse career coachLynn Berger, who is also a licensed mental health counselor, to ask for coping strategies and tips that would help me focus on doing my job—rather than potentially losing it.

Berger advises being gentle with yourself as you start a new position after losing a former one, noting that feeling a little apprehension is perfectly natural. “Remember, you’re coming back from a disappointment and you need to give it a little time,” she says.

If you receive an email or instant message out of the blue inviting you to an unscheduled meeting or call, as I did, Berger suggests taking deep breaths and remembering that you’re talented and capable. Staying calm and thinking positive thoughts rather than negative ones will allow you to enter the meeting or take the call from a position of strength, she adds. To bolster your confidence, you can write a list of your achievements to reflect on in those moments when you feel your anxiety spiking. It may sound pat, but these simple steps can help you override your automatic thought patterns and give you some measure of calm.

You can also ask your boss what the meeting is about and how you can best prepare for it, which may put your mind at ease, Nogg says.

Finding fulfillment in your interests and hobbies outside your job will remind you that there’s a lot more to life than work, which can remove some self-imposed pressure. With that in mind, I signed up for an online playwriting class that provided a fun and creative outlet that stopped me from stressing about work in my downtime.

Addressing your job loss concerns (and the financial and other worries that go hand-in-hand with unemployment) head on is another way to foster peace of mind as fears linger. If you’ve ever considered taking on a side hustle, that can also help keep things in perspective. After my first layoff, I picked up freelance assignments and continued working for several clients after I’d accepted a full-time job. When I lost that second job, I took comfort in knowing that I had these gigs, which served as sources of income and gave me a sense of purpose and confidence after my self-esteem took a hit.

Because financial concerns are among the biggest stressors that accompany job loss, I’ve also taken a hard look at our budget and considered where we could make cuts. Putting those extra dollars into an emergency fund gives me a sense of security, knowing our expenses will be covered in the event that I find myself without a paycheck yet again.

If layoff anxiety starts to impact your work performance, consider speaking to a career counselor or therapist to pinpoint additional strategies that can help you get through the day to day. After talking with Nogg and Berger, I realized that there’s no quick cure for my layoff anxiety and that’s normal. “Know that there is a vulnerability there and it could take years until you start to really feel comfortable again,” Berger says, noting that you can focus on your success even as you recognize that there will always be factors beyond your control.

So what I can do, rather than obsess about potentially losing my job, is remind myself of the value that I add, ask for info that can help alleviate my anxiety, pursue the interests that make me happy and the opportunities that can pad my income during non-work hours, ask for help if I need it, and trust that, with time, spontaneous meetings won’t send me into such a tailspin.